Talking to yourself? Choose your words carefully.
My little Yorkshire Terrier has been my voiceless conversation partner for most of her fifteen years.
With children and husband away at schools, work, colleges, and business trips, there were countless hours when it was only she and me at home—and I am a talker.
I have entire “conversations” with Miss Riley-Rose. I pose questions and then form answers on her behalf. I explain why I disagree with a TV host and share my critique of the news anchor’s sartorial choices. I can prattle away the hours as I move around my house.
But it was only during the early Covid months that I started to think about what I was voicing aloud. Although she didn’t understand the content of my speech, Riley could clearly hear me. And, just as she could physically hear me speak, so could I hear myself.
I started to pay attention to my word choice and found that what I said was often vastly exaggerated.
I noticed this one day when I realized I had been in the kitchen for ages, and Riley was nowhere to be seen. She has beds in almost every room in the house and trawls between them as I move from room to room. But, halfway through cooking dinner, she wasn’t in her kitchen bed.
I finished chopping the veg and began walking from floor to floor, looking for her. When I found her, I scooped her up and proceeded to tell her how anxious I had been, how I was freaking out, panicking that she was lost. I explained how worried I was and how she must never disappear again.
Naturally, this was a colossal exaggeration. The house is closed up, and she cannot get outside without a human hand opening the handle, nor can she disappear, but—in my love of hyperbolic wording—I had stated aloud that I was hugely stressed until I located her.
This got me thinking. Could speaking like this actually cause my body to respond as though I really had been in a high state of anxiety?
Was my silly chatter harmful?
We have all heard of self-talk, the voice we direct at ourselves silently or sometimes aloud. You drop a favorite mug and exclaim, “Ugh, I’m such a clumsy fool.”
And most of us also know that negative self-talk can be very destructive when we speak to ourselves in a manner that we would never dream of using on someone else. “Gosh, your hair really looks awful today.”
After the looking-for-the-dog episode, I became more attuned to my word choices. I began by practicing on the dog—I told you she was my conversation partner.
I started by speaking in more mild tones, using more mild words. Did I really “hate” the TV anchor’s outfit, or did I simply think it didn’t suit her? Would I truly “never, ever” cook fish that way, or was it more accurate to say that I wasn’t sure mango with salmon was my ideal pairing?
When I paid attention to how I spoke to Riley, I was surprised to find negative self-talk cropping up. “Mommy can’t do anything right today.” I was running myself down to the dog!
I became even more aware of my words. When I got stuck trying to figure out a new social media platform or app, instead of sighing, “I’ll never figure this out!”, I took a breath (always a good start) and replaced it with a question: “How do I figure this out?” Or, I stated a way forward. “I’m struggling to figure this out. I’ll try again tomorrow.”
I also started questioning if some of my exclamations were even true. After seeing a work friend’s tireless output, I caught myself thinking, “I am so lazy.” Not true! I reminded myself that, in fact, I often find it tough to slow down as I pack too much in a day.
Lastly, I focused on disrupting negative thoughts in the same way you try to dislodge a song that gets stuck in your head.
When I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I’d often fall back on the same words: “you are getting old, my dear.” It was like a silly, pointless habit, a rote phrase with no real meaning. So, I intentionally disrupted that habitual thought by focusing on cutting off the thought before it was fully formed and then intentionally replacing the words with something more positive.
When the getting-old statement started to slide onto my tongue, I would purse my lips and blow out air like a soundless whistle. Then I’d take note of one positive thing—anything—and say it aloud. “Your hair looks great, this blouse is a great fit, anything.
It’s hard to say if I feel any major difference, but I like feeling more deliberate about, more conscious, more thoughtful about the words I choose—even if I am just talking to myself.